Throwing all jokes about students and sensible drug consumption aside, Students For Sensible Drug Policy Ireland are set to challenge the state’s prescriptive strictures on drug use.Rashers Tierney catches up with Seán Lynch. He’s a founding member of the group and it’s their first conference this weekend.
You lot represent the Irish wing of a more international movement. Can ye tell me how you got set up here and what the aims of the group are?
Not only do we represent the Irish wing of a more international movement, but we also represent the International movement more generally. SSDP started in the States over 16 years ago and although there remains to be a strong U.S. focus in the group, which is somewhat understandable, our Irish participation regularly campaigns for the internationalization of SSDP. In 2012 one of our Irish members, Graham de Barra, got on the Board of Directors of SSDP as the first ever international board member and we regularly discuss about how to go about making SSDP more internationally focused which is one of our long term internal aims.
We first got interested in SSDP following a lack of legitimacy from other groups such as Legalise Cannabis Ireland, of which a few of our members played a helping role with efforts in Cork and Dublin. Annual marching down the main streets just didn’t bring about the conversations that need to happen in the public domain however they certainly played their role and were undoubtedly instrumental to the formation of SSDP in Ireland.
Following the discovery of student-lead drug policy reform efforts online, we began collecting student signatures in UCC and drafting out plans for a society. We wanted to establish a platform whereby we could invite medical and professional experts to engage with students and train them to be the next generation of drug policy reformers. We ticked all the boxes and we first submitted a society request to UCC in 2011/12 but we got shot down straight away.
They wouldn’t even consider it. We re-trained ourselves and re-submitted another application in 2012/13 and reluctantly, and only because the Student Union President at the time, Ben Honan, put his title on the line threatening to resign immediately if our society would not be recognized, did they accept us. Hurray for democracy. This was defended by the President of the Societies Guild, Jamie Hooper, who lead the Society Department to increased student-centered policies. The Guild allowed us a 2-year provisional societal status with the condition of a name change from Students for Sensible Drug Policy, to the Drug Awareness and Reform Society. I’m not exactly sure why, but at the time Dieago funded alcohol awareness campaigns on campus and I think they had interests around the word “sensible” (drink sensibly). Thankfully the USI withdrew support from private lobbyists Dieago last year in 2013 and now that we’re finished our 2nd year as a provisional society in UCC a name change from DAR to SSDP is our first priority, but we will certainly miss our DARlings.
We aim to give students in Ireland an opinion on drug policy and how it could best serve to protect the public. Frankly we believe that the criminalization of non-violent drug offenders has completely failed to protect our youth and we immediately need to re-address this from a public health perspective.
Poor old Ming The Merciless had to dampen his ardour for the cannabis after getting elected, fearing our keepers of the peace might fit him up for his bold lines on drug use. Are you worried that if you started pushing buttons on some of this stuff the forces of Babylon might start playing nasty and bust individuals involved?
They can try all they want but they’re going to be wasting their time. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. We’re the ones doing the busting.
According to our student survey of over 1,000 undergraduate students at the National University of Ireland, Galway in February of this year 44% of students think all drugs should regulated like alcohol – while these students might not regularly campaign with us, they are by definition SSDP. Many of the Gardaí in our districts know who we are and what we are involved with. Thankfully we have developed a very positive relationship with the Gardaí in our several years of campaigning. In fact, many Gardaí have often disclosed with us privately that these laws are often unenforced and unenforceable anyway. In fact, according to the same survey, only 18% of students who have come into contact with the law have had a decrease on their drug use. This suggests that a dominant criminal justice position around drug use is the wrong approach.
If I cast my aging mind back, many summers ago there used to be regularly cannabis liberation days out in Marley Park and smoke-ins in Trinity College. More recently, there was various cannabis legalisation marches too. Are you lot strictly going to keep your noses clean as a whistle, or can we expect some direct action down the line?
We first got involved with ideas of drug policy reform from the Legalise Cannabis Ireland marches in Cork and Dublin. They certainly have their place, but a march down the main street isn’t in our interests or at least not until we can co-ordinate national student-lead campaigns. Currently we are happy with providing a professional platform in Universities to allow medical and other professional experts to express their ideas with the our fellow students and the public about why they feel there is a need for drug policy reform and how we can go about it.
We encourage students to critically analyse their campus drug policy and campaign for progressive policies grounded in science. We are here to help and protect you.
Uruguay’s president Jose Mujica has asked the world to support his country’s move to legalise cannabis. Whilst we hear little mention of Portugals bold system in the media here. Ireland seems to be towing the US line of the war on drugs while global movements are a foot against prohibition. What do you think? You are a lobbying group so. Can you outline to me what the practical campaigning steps you envision as we progress towards a more sensible drugs policy?
Well if you look at Colorado and Washington, they’re implementing change now because these types of conversations started happening a long time ago. Thankfully there is a lot of reason to be optimistic for the future as general activity on social media strongly supports drug policy reform here in Ireland. What we need to do is bring these conversations into the real world. That is our goal. The experts are there waiting to be heard and we need to provide them with a professional platform to engage members of the public who do not participate in these online debates. That is real change. Secondly, there is a lot of room to be optimistic for the future in an international context. Last month we sent several Irish SSDP members to the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna #cnd2014. The overall consensus here was that countries who are beginning to divert from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs won’t be hit with economic or other sanctions but will be indirectly allowed some freedom to control their own domestic drug policy. There was an overwhelming support for Uruguay and everyone was talking about cannabis regulation. Roll on the United Nations General Assembly Special Session 2016, where the goal among the international drug policy network is to send 400,000 attendees globally to New York City where we are planning to sending several Irish SSDP (we have already sent students to participate in drug policy conventions in Vienna, Colorado and Washington). If you think you have what it takes, get on board.
Interestingly, Ireland have become the first European country to boycott the funding of the International Narcotic Board, in protest over the death penalty for drug possession in Iran.
In Galway, Emmett Smith of NUI Galway SSDP lead a vigil outside the closed down Merlin Park addiction centre, in campaign for greater resources and anonymity for problematic drug users. This was very well received by local medical experts, and of course drug users of our communities. At campus level we further advocate for greater evidence-based policies around drug possession.
We’re always rabbiting on about harm reduction and the need for pill testing and the like as a bare minimum in rabble. What’s your feeling on the whole subject and how our media seems to churn out the same scare stories every few months?
We need to address the real problems of drugs and that involves a completely new paradigm on how we deal with drugs – that is how to reduce the effects drugs have on health – and tackle this from a public health perspective. Pill testing would be a step in the right direction, but this can only be safely implemented if drug users can test their pills with confidence of not being criminalized for possession. I think it’s unlikely to work unless we understand the reasons as to why we need to decriminalize at the same time. What we could possibly implement is an open data policy around drug seizers so those drugs that are seized are tested and the results are made public.
What did you think of the heyday of mephedrone when head shops were sprouting up everywhere? Did we lose an opportunity to introduce a progressive system of regulation back then?
The explosion of head-shops just goes to show the demand there is for selling and consuming any sort of intoxicating substance without proper clinical trials and frameworks to go by that have little-to-no regard for human safety. If people think the headshops were a bad idea, they really have no idea what’s going on in the streets (for lack of a better term). I think what the headshop mephedrone saga taught us is that what we really need are standardized frameworks about sales and consumption. Currently, our health risks revolve around the “Just Say No” metaphor, of which many young people ignore as there is little legitimacy in that campaign in the real world. It was illuminating to see what little regard vendors had for human health, and I think that’s an issue that is not just related to headshop drugs but an issue that needs to be discussed on a much broader context about all the substances we’re putting into our bodies and how we can mitigate the associated health risks.
When it comes to getting wrecked in Ireland, there’s one lot that profit more than most. Our old friends the vintners. How do you think such vested interests play out in the drugs debate? Any time I take a spin down home, I’m always shocked at the sentences handed out for rather minor drugs offences in the court reports in the local papers. It seems to be that there is often a class dimension at play or at the very least, people from certain backgrounds are more likely to be criminalised over drug use than others. What do you think?
It’s a known fact that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately affected by the prohibition of drugs than their better-off citizens. In the U.S., prisons – that are run for profit, by the way- are disproportionately filled with healthy black males (who coincidentally don’t require as much medical expenditure) and even in Ireland ex-Governor of Mountjoy reiterated these facts earlier this year with the press. This happens not because people from lower socio-economic groups use more drugs, but because they are an easier target for arrest. Why is drinking alcohol any different to someone using cannabis? Essentially it boils down to social control: People controlling other people. Does anyone ever think the rich and powerful are going to lose out? This is capitalist Ireland for crying out loud. The system isn’t designed for them to loose.
What I find really disappointing is that as a collection of societies we’ve known this for decades. I’m only 25, and this shit has been blatantly obvious for at least 10 years.
There are parts of Dublin at the moment that resemble Hamsterdam from The Wire. What are your feelings on heroin addiction, the destructive prescribing of methadone and the need for safer injecting facilities in the city? is that something you intend to go near, or is it all just nice and polite spliff and biscuits with you lot?
Heroin addiction is obviously a rampant epidemic that is terrorizing families however there is also a community of people who choose to inject that can live under the radar that we don’t hear about. Again I think this boils down to how we can mitigate the health risks around all types of drugs and heroin is no exception. Considering there are areas in Dublin that drug users have to some degree claimed as their own suggests that our laws are unable to be enforced. It is time we take up the responsibility of protecting our less fortunate – that is to much of our own benefit – and stop the spread of viral diseases. We need to reintegrate disenfranchised members back into our community. Having a drug addiction is bad enough without being a criminal at the same time, and I fail to see how criminalizing drug users is going to reduce the risks of homelessness and diseases. SSDP are very much in favor of responsible drug-consumption rooms and free needle exchange programs and disposable units.
There is time for a new national conversation about drug policy and how it can best serve to protect us. We have over 650 official members nationwide who are all invited along with members of the public, to join us this Saturday 5th April in NUIG for our 1st National Conference.
In January our chapters in NUIG and UCC held a seminar each on heroin, addiction and homelessness where we offered the public a chance to educate themselves on these issues by putting them in touch with various experts. And by the way I don’t smoke spiffs, but I do enjoy chocolate biscuits when I caffeinate.
Find out more about Students For A Sensible Drug Policy on their website.